Basic Alignment Principles in Graphic Design (with Examples)
A design with poor alignment is a little like a poorly organized desk. If you’ve ever had a workspace covered in clutter, you know how frustrating it can be; documents that should go together are nowhere near each other, nothing’s where you expect it to be and the whole thing is just plain unattractive to look at.
Chances are you’ve seen graphic design examples that give you a similar feeling. When the principles of alignment aren’t used properly, it makes marketing collateral look disorganized, haphazard and visually illogical.
Alignment is vitally important in print graphic design because it:
- allows you to arrange elements in a way that matches how people naturally scan the page
- helps balance your image so that it’s visually appealing
- creates a visual connection between related elements
Finding the “invisible line”
Alignment (like the name suggests) is all about organizing elements relative to a line or margin. This doesn’t have to be a literal line in your design; in fact, it’s usually an invisible margin implied by the way your design is arranged.
The two basic alignment principles are edge alignment and center alignment. Each is essentially a different way of utilizing an invisible line.
Edge alignment naturally positions elements against a margin that matches up with their outer edges. This is a quite common technique; even this very article uses edge alignment to keep the text flush against the left margin.
Center alignment places design elements so that they line up with one another on their center axes. Technically every shape has a center axis (though they’re generally easiest to judge on simple, regular shapes).
Note that this doesn’t always mean that elements are placed in the horizontal center of the page. You can place shapes side-by-side or diagonally oriented and still align them on their center axes.
Here’s a redesigned version of our business card from earlier:
By making those “invisible lines” visible, we can see how this design makes good use of both edge and center alignment.
Because this business card’s elements are logically aligned, the design is more balanced-looking and easier to navigate. Additionally, the fact that the details at the bottom are aligned with one another helps make it clear that they’re related (specifically, they’re all pieces of contact information).
Common Types of Horizontal Alignment for Text
When dealing with alignment theory, most people immediately think of the horizontal placement of text on a page. This is only a single aspect of the alignment principles, but it’s undeniably an important one since you’ll be dealing with it anytime you work with text.
There are four common types of alignment when dealing with text placement: center, flush left, flush right and justified.
A trap that designers sometimes fall into is placing every element on the center axis of the page. While this is a more organized and symmetrical look than placing test haphazardly, it tends to be a pretty weak and easy choice. When your entire page is symmetrical, it often ends up looking boring with no visual interest.
Center alignment works best when dealing with just a few short lines of text. You should never use it for full paragraphs because it makes them more difficult to read; the audience has no straight margin so their eyes must move to a new position every time they start a new line.
You can add interest to an all-centered graphic design by playing with text shapes, fonts, and colors. Check out the example to the right–the design is centered, but uses different orientations and letter sizes to create the shape of a sword. Just because your text is center-aligned doesn’t mean there’s no room for creativity.
As a general rule, if you use center alignment, make sure it’s clear that you’re using it intentionally–not just because you’re lazy.
Text aligned against a hard left-hand margin is generally considered the strongest, “safest” choice and is the most common orientation. It results in a very comfortable, secure and conservative look (though again, there are plenty of ways to use it creatively).
Flush left alignment is a great choice whenever you have large paragraphs of text; the hard edge on the left naturally complements the way we read English. If your paragraphs are flush left, remember to keep your headlines flush left as well.
Flush right alignment is much less common than other types, so it’s often used to give elements a unique or “offbeat” look and feel. With this orientation, text is aligned against a hard right-hand margin (with the left side left “ragged”).
Like with center alignment, you should avoid using flush right on large paragraphs since the ragged left edge will make them difficult to read. With shorter lines of text, it can help give your words extra weight and importance since it requires more effort to read. It’s more interesting than centering everything, but overusing it may frustrate your reader.
Flush right alignment is also used in place of flush left in terms of readability when dealing with languages that read right to left (such as Chinese, Japanese or Arabic).
With justified alignment, both the left and right sides of the text are effectively flush against hard, straight margins. This is achieved by individually adjusting the spacing of each line of text–so a line with fewer characters will be more broadly spaced, while a line with more characters will have less space between them. Ideally, the difference in space will be subtle enough that you won’t really notice the difference, but the end result will be a neat and organized look that’s more formal-looking than flush left alignment.
You’ve probably seen this technique used in books, newspapers, magazines and other publications. Justification is especially useful when working with multiple columns of text because it helps to keep them visually separate from one another as well as fit more characters into a smaller amount of space.
Justified text comes with one major complication. If individual words are too long or the columns are too narrow, it can sometimes create large unsightly gaps of blank space. If you’re having these types of issues with justification, try using a longer line length, a smaller font, or shorter words.
When working with graphic design, you should never place anything arbitrarily. Using the principles of alignment helps bind and unify all of your elements together into a strong, cohesive structure.
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Posted in Print Design